News archive 2004
Expert warns of self-medicating with herbal medicines06 Sep 2004, PR 48/04
A high percentage of the population could be endangering their health by taking herbal medicines without checking with a health professional first according to Peter Houghton, Professor in Pharmacognosy, King’s College London.
Speaking today (6 September) at the BA Festival of Science, Prof Houghton warned of the risks of herbal remedies interacting with conventional medicines.
There is widespread belief that all herbs are safe because they are ‘natural’. However, some plant material may contain compounds which are toxic and the amount present can vary much more than with a synthetic product. And, unlike pharmaceutical drugs, there are no strict quality standards for herbal medications.
“Although your risk of dying from taking a herbal remedy is extremely small, some do interact with other medicines with serious consequences. For instance, St John’s Wort makes many prescription drugs used to treat conditions such as heart disease, depression, seizures, certain cancers or to prevent conditions such as transplant rejection or pregnancy (oral contraceptives) less effective,” said Prof Houghton.
People also run additional risks because they tend to diagnose themselves and take what they think appropriate. The danger is that their diagnosis could be incorrect or they take the wrong remedy.
“Patients should buy herbal medicines from somewhere where they can receive health advice from a professional, such as a pharmacist,” added Prof Houghton.
In addition, an herb, although safe in itself, may be contaminated with, or replaced by, a much more dangerous substance. This can happen either by mistakes being made by consumers or suppliers of the herb, or be done deliberately for dishonest commercial reasons.
“A large amount of risk associated with these situations can be reduced by checking the identity and composition of the herb by scientific methods,” he added. “A new class of medicines based on traditional use is now on the EU statute books, so in the future consumers will know that a herbal product is of good quality if it has an EU licence.”
Notes to editors
1. Peter J Houghton is Professor in Pharmacognosy in the Department of Pharmacy, King’s College London.
2. Prof Houghton’s lecture “Are herbal medicines really safe?” will be in the session entitled “Can herbs improve your health?” on 6 September.
King’s College London
King’s is one of the oldest and largest colleges of the University of London with 13,800 undergraduate students and some 5,300 postgraduates in ten schools of study. The College had 24 of its subject-areas awarded the highest rating of 5* and 5 for research quality, demonstrating excellence at an international level. King’s is in the top group of five universities for research earnings with income from grants and contracts of more than £93 million (2002-2003) and has an annual turnover of £320 million. King’s is a member of the Russell Group, a coalition of the UK’s major research-based universities.
The BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science)
The BA is the UK's nationwide, open membership organisation dedicated to connecting science with people, so that science and its applications become accessible to all. The BA aims to promote openness about science in society and to engage and inspire people directly with science and technology and their implications.
The BA Festival of Science
The BA Festival of Science is one of the UK's biggest science festivals. It attracts 400 of the best scientists and science communicators from home and abroad who reveal the latest developments in research to a general audience. The BA Festival of Science 2004 will take place at the University of Exeter from 6 - 10 September 2004, and throughout the city from 4 - 11 September. The BA Festival 2004 is supported by the South West of England Regional Development Agency. For further information, visit www.the-ba.net/festivalofscience
BA Festival Press Office. Tel 01392-263610.
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